WHO WOULD BE THE MAN, WHO WOULD BE THE KING?
In the near dark, on the far side of the room, a man stood up prematurely. You could see his hesitation, his blank face containing no plan to traverse a floor concealed by bodies. Neither was there deference in the room for this man: no sleeper awoke: the few already awake did not look. His stature was not enough to puncture dreams, sleeping or waking.
After a time, the figure settled back down into his former place, became one of the bodies on the floor, unable on the one hand to discern a path in the jigsaw, unable on the other to force what will he did possess upon them. Then again, perhaps he had been afraid his warm gap on the floor would close.
For there was only the one room in the blockhouse and the one blockhouse upon the hill. Commander and common warrior were intermingled with the travelers who had also arrived—nearly meeting in the doorway—that afternoon.
The entrance of the two parties to the blockhouse had been a protracted, difficult affair. Confusions of rank, privilege, and precedent worsened when it became clear that neither party would play host in the empty house in the deserted corner of the valley. In addition, obviously senior men would not let on how senior they were—refusing the preferred spots on the floor as well as the first and best servings of the little food that was prepared. Secrecy in such close quarters, maintained at such a pitch for so long sat well with no one. Faces that might have been only exhausted or guarded wore the insult in which everyone shared.
The men who did not now sleep—some from either party—might have been accused of betraying their mistrust. The men who mistrusted in the unreadable silences, who did not sleep, employed their tongues to roll the last morsels from rear molars. Neither party had brought enough food to keep the evening meal from being less than anyone had expected. Still, the bad feeling seemed manageable.
Now a low murmur did begin on the opposite side of the door in one of the languages that he, he himself, he who had seen the hesitant figure, did not speak, not even to say hello. Who were the men in the room, really? His question—but one that might also have been fairly asked of him.
That afternoon, on the approach to the blockhouse and hanging back a little from their escort, the older man had stopped and asked to be referred to as Graves. Then, newly christened, Graves turned away without suggesting a name for him. Lewis, he decided to be if asked, but so far he had not needed a name.
This new precaution was not surprising and only a further step into the elliptical manner in which all their conversations were now conducted. At least since they crossed the border. He, the older man, Graves, did not like to use too many names or any place names at all. Graves said that proper nouns in general were best left aside: they helped to make conversations intelligible to listeners who would otherwise understand nothing worth passing along.
Still, the rule was stifling to Lewis. Not only because he, Lewis, understood even less than he might have about where he was and what was happening around him but because Graves broke his own rule whenever he wished, waving an impatient hand when Lewis flinched at a word, Badakhshan, for example.
Graves introduced himself as Graves to the headman of the other party. The headman was very easy in his manner and smiled when he asked,
“Would you prefer we not speak about what we each are doing in this place?”
“That might be best, and very hospitable. Too much information might force one or the other of us to sleep out in the cold.”
When the food was ready they ate and it must have been a long day for both groups: food gave way to sleep as fast as the meal could be cleared. Without a name worth knowing, he had been relegated to a position nearer the door than the figure who had stood up and lain back down. Presently he stood up and woke the man sleeping against the door. He had been afraid to do this but now the need was greater than the fear.
The hills were a strange line. The stars were strange stars. The path they had followed to the blockhouse was only distinguishable from the path beyond by his memory of left and right. In the background, behind the sound of wind, there was a strange sound for which his mind could not find a reason. The smells, alas, were not strange, and, holding the waist of his pants ready for instant and urgent action, he picked his way over the slurry on the side of the hill.
When he was finished, he climbed the hill and stopped in the road. The strange sound was still there, like a buzzing in his ear. Not wanting to be in the close air of the room just yet, he stayed in the road, a hesitant figure to look at no doubt, but he felt, no, he did not know what he felt.
In his absence, the room had changed. Several men were conversing.
“…What you say says much of him, but it is nothing to mine. I heard this of him. When he wanted to build a house, he decided to enclose his land with a wall running along the line. But as they were building his wall, they came to a tree whose trunk was on his neighbor’s land but whose branches crossed onto his land, and blocked the path of the wall. He went to his neighbor—she was an old woman—and asked her that he might cut the branches that he could build his wall. She refused his request. Although this displeased him, he abandoned the project rather than force his will upon a helpless widow. This was the kind of man he was.”
“He wanted to be a schoolteacher. So I was told.”
“He refused a Mercedes Benz. I saw this myself.”
Sitting next to—no, sitting next to Graves, Lewis leaned in to ask,
“Who are they talking about?”
“Oh, they’re just christing Massoud again.”
“For our benefit. Yours mostly, I expect. I don’t think among all these bundled figures they’d realized you’d stepped out. Matter of fact, I didn’t either.”
“Any good stories about Massoud? That we haven’t heard, I mean.”
“There are only good stories about Massoud. Now. Seldom you find a people so ready to effect the investiture of all their best qualities into a man they’ve only just murdered.”
“Massoud’s assassins were Arabs.”
“Two Arabs that had to pass through a roll call of Afghans to get to their man.”
The stories had turned into a debate, no longer in English. For the present, they were ignored. Graves asked him, “Did I ever tell you about the man with three sons?”
“Is this a story you’re talking too loud to tell?”
“They won’t mind. They’d tell it, too. This man was set with a problem—his land was at a crossroads and was liable to change hands in the hostilities of his moment, which were always both immanent and ongoing. So he fixed upon a solution. One son he sent south to the Taliban. Another son he sends to San Diego, to school—this was after the fall of Dr. Najibullah, otherwise that son would have probably gone to nominally communist Kabul. The last son he sends to the Panjshir to join one of the bands fighting with Massoud. In this way, no matter who arrived at his gates, he could truly say that one of his sons fought alongside those men. What I mean to say is—oh, here we go.”
The headman, who had been one of the most animated speakers, now approached Graves. For the first time, it was apparent that the man knew Graves, his deference to the false name betraying another measure of politeness.
“Did you know that we have with us a witness to the death? Yes, Asil was with him when he died,” he smiled. “This is almost the only interesting thing about Asil.”
Hearing his name repeated in the flow of the other language, Asil turned to look at them. Had he no English? He had come over from where, it seemed, that first, hesitant figure had been. Could have been the same man. Or not.
“And he only ever has one thing to say about that day, said the headman,” and he spoke to Asil. Asil responded with a single sentence which sounded rote even across the barrier of the language. “For the journalists. For the journalists we went online and translated this phrase. We taught Asil to say it in French. The French always took a great interest in Massoud.” To Asil, he simply said, “Francais.”
“Ses yeux ont été remplis de sang. Nous avons bourré ses yeux avec du coton.”
“Seine Augen wurden mit Blut gefüllt. Wir füllten seine Augen mit Baumwolle an.”
Once he had it in Italian, as well, but that has left him. For you, of course, and lastly, in English.”
Asil immediately said, following hard on the named language, and with strange, but not altogether inappropriate emphasis,
“His eyes were filled with blood. We stuffed his eyes with cotton.”
“You see? Asil’s first-hand account entire.”
Not knowing what was expected, Lewis nodded to Asil.
“Limited by the speaker, but there are other accounts. Even other deaths. One even worth telling that your companion, your Mr. Graves, has himself witnessed. Or perhaps he has told it to you? Has he told you the story of the man with the bat?
Lewis fought the urge to look at Graves.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Then that pleasure falls to me.”
Forgotten Asil, deciding he was no longer required, re-crossed the room to his place, into which he had to shove his way as he settled down.
“Several years ago, your colleague and I saw the fall of Herat. In the hamlet before, plus one, a single man resisted the advance. He stood out in the middle of the road and as the soldiers were about to fire, someone cried out that this man held a bat in his hands.”
Graves broke in, “Tell him what kind of bat.”
“Thank you. The man in the road held a cricket bat in his hand.”
The headman rose and motioned to his erstwhile neighbor, who immediately lifted his rifle, removed the magazine, and, with a magician’s hand, cleared the action. Then the magician put the Kalashnikov into the speaker’s waiting hand. Grasping the barrel so that the stock hovered near the floor, the headman took up the posture of a cricket batter, staring toward an opponent somewhere beyond the wall.
Turning to Graves, already confused at the headman’s story, he asked,
“Do they play cricket here?”
“Not really. Some. In any case, he isn’t Afghan.” Graves glanced quickly at the standing headman. “A bit unusual, gets around more than his colleagues. Knows more—and more people. Knows more than I do.”
Lewis saw that Graves did not like to admit this.
The headman began again.
“The challenge was accepted—and one of the soldiers fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the batter.”
With an abrupt twist of his torso, the rifle butting whipping up and around, the speaker mimed the deflection of an unseen projectile.
“All were impressed at this cut, an elegant sweeping stroke. They fired again. And again, he played the shot perfectly, deflecting it via a narrowly successful leg glance, sending the round past him where it bounded twice on the paving stones and exploded against the wall of a building far to his rear. Now, one might have been luck, but two must be skill, and I said to your Mister Graves—for we stood shoulder-to-shoulder that day—I do recognize this batter.
“He had been one of ours, a colleague, who had spent years for us in this country. Well-educated, literary, a student of the Shahnameh and of the many poets who once haunted Bukhara its environs, but also unreliable, given to…proclivities that were unacceptable in our ranks. When he parted ways with us, he had come to live in this place, which, that day, turned murderously unsafe.”
The speaker found his grip again on the rifle-barrel-cricket-bat and resumed the play-by-play.
“The next shot was disaster only narrowly averted, a block shot being dangerous with explosives. He was required to improvise to defend his wicket, but he was managing for another two shots, one of which simply went well wide of him—a laugh started up all along the line at the shooter’s incompetence, and he rounded off his performance with a magnificent hook shot.
“But this last stroke, commanding though it was, was as the cresting wave at its height—a signal of ensuing weakness. So it proved. The next stroke was barely adequate. The projectile following left him bloody in the dust and he expired even before they could finish him.”
Across the room, a sleeper rolled into another sleeper, and a brief, muttered spat was expelled into what would have been silence for the slain cricketer. The headman shrugged as though to acknowledge the world’s lack of deference.
“His was a great effort. And much admired.”
Nodding to his two listeners, he returned the rifle and retreated toward bed. Trying to reconcile the little he thought he knew with what he’d heard, he sat next to Graves. Not knowing cricket, not knowing Herat, not knowing what force the headman had been with, or even from which sphere of influence he hailed. Or even what he himself had been doing and where on the day when this unknown man had fought his last, strange fight.
All this while, Graves watched his face, carefully. Then said, without asking anything first,
“That’s a shame. I thought you were holding your own, but you weren’t. Holding your own just listening is—in this country—as much hard work as digging a ditch at home. You really didn’t catch that they were bullshitting you. I thought you did. While he was telling it, I was looking at your face and thinking you were a better liar than I had figured.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He made it up.”
“The whole thing?”
“No, not the whole thing, but he saw he had you and dialed it up. They weren’t firing grenades at him, Jesus, nobody could do that.”
“Fire grenades at him?”
“Well, they wouldn’t have, certainly, a single man and all. Would have been a waste. But no, I mean hit the grenades with the bat. Far too many feet per second. Beyond anyone to put bat to ball. Even if he did, like as not, the fucking thing would explode. But don’t feel too bad, honestly I think it did them good to believe you could believe that. Does me good, come to mention it.”
“That I’m that guy, who’d believe anything?”
“Not anything, but that he could have. That felt good. But they were throwing rocks instead of grenades—the rest is true—rock after rock and they wore him down. He couldn’t defend the wicket and the wicket was him and they knocked him down and went on from there. Damnedest thing I ever saw.”
“So you were there, then. I was starting to wonder about that, too.”
“Oh, yes. I was. I don’t know cricket but the way and order of the strokes stays in my mind. Other than the what was being thrown at him, I think they told you true. And in the telling they needed to up it a little, juice the projectile to get at what was so…remarkable about him standing there defying them all at all.”
“You didn’t help him?”
“Him? Oh. Well, we weren’t actually there on his side, as it happened.”
“You were there with…?”
“We were there with those who were coming in from the South. But only as observers. No help. No guidance either.”
“You may need to consider the possibility that the interference we could have offered, me, you, your government, was negligible. You may need to consider the enormous force requisite to stop the fall of a sparrow.”
Graves shifted again.
“Course there was also his pederasty to consider.”
“That’s what they were killing him for, the brave batsman, he just chose his own way to go. A bugger, as our cricket-following fellows would have it. Boys, they said, why he left his colleagues behind. They weren’t especially sorry to see him jammed up like that—he hadn’t been discreet. Rajim is what it’s called. Course they were supposed to topple a wall on him, as a matter of law. But I suppose everyone was feeling creative that day.”
Graves laid down and seemed through talking to Lewis. Then he propped himself up again.
“I don’t know what you speak and don’t speak but what did you think of Asil’s nice little line about eyes and blood and cotton? Or kah-tin, as he said it.”
“Not much of a story to translate so many times.”
“True. But I think it’s more interesting that his French and German versions were translated from an English sentence. Not one of his own. His story started life as a line in English. What does that mean? I don’t know. Go to sleep.”
Lewis slept solidly for perhaps three and a half hours. When he awoke, he reminded himself that his name was Lewis. If anyone asked. Was it his first or last name? He hadn’t made up his mind.
The air in the room was thick, as was the heat (the blockhouse was snugly built) and as no one was stirring it felt as though they were all packed carefully for shipment. He wished he could simply lie there. But his insides disagreed with something. Not on a minor point, either. Urgency to the debate. He had to go back outside.
He shook the man against the door, who opened the door without opening his eyes.
The moon was out now and he could see more clearly where he had been before. The discoloration marking the road out from the hillside was below the blockhouse and the path he had taken before was well below the road. The side of the hill was streaked and punctuated both—the house was a well-used crossroads (but who owned it, he wondered again.) The strange sound was still there. He still couldn’t place it.
In the dark, some things had been easier. His feet were prejudiced and chose their footing poorly. Twice he nearly fell. Once he had to put his hand down. Still squeamish with so little time to un-squeam. Colder now, too. So cold the relief in pulling up his trousers was comparable to the relief he’d felt pulling them down.
When he regained the road, Asil was standing there, gazing discretely upward.
“Machay,” he said as Lewis approached.
The man directed his eyes upward once more, angled his head, and pointed his index finger on a hand he kept carefully against his chest. As though he were being watched. Oh. He was. They were.
“Machay,” Asil said again and slow tumblers turned for Lewis until he recalled that machay was wasp, what the machine hovering above them was sometimes here called. He stared up in the direction of the strange noise. Meeting the gaze, perhaps of Virginians, perhaps of New Mexicans, staring back at him from a past called Eastern Standard or Mountain Time. He felt comforted for no reason he could name. Maybe that the strands out of which the world was raveled were so much. So much so. Maybe that was not the reason.
He tilted his head back toward the sound and, extending his arm fully, waved. Asil stepped away from Lewis. Discretely, as though not wishing to offend.
DREW JOHNSON’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, New England Review, VQR, Gulf Coast, Spolia, and elsewhere. His 7 Greyhounds came out as a one of The Cupboard’s single-issue chapbooks.
The Los Angeles Review of Books published his five-part essay on the “ephemeral real” in film and other writing has found its way into The Paris Review Daily, The Collagist, The Rumpus, and Bookslut. A good deal of this may be found through his website, walkswithmoose.com.
He lives on the Western shore of the Quabbin, teaches in the Merrimack River Valley, and studied writing between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Rivanna River. He was raised in Mississippi.